FAA Customer Service: Jekyll, Meet Hyde

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This is supposed to be a blog about FAA customer service, but allow me to digress for a moment. At the tragically young age of six, I was diagnosed with FFPS—form fill-out psychosis syndrome. This manifested itself in the nuns sending notes home to my parents commenting on little Paul's art and coloring projects being somewhat monochromatic and what coloring I did was well outside the lines. But the nuns were simply out of their depth. They weren't observant enough to realize that the reason I wasn't coloring was because I was melting down my crayons and mixing them with aluminum dust from my Dad's shop to make explosives. Had I had the patience to fill out an order form from my Gilbert chemistry set to get my hands on a little toluene, I'd have succeeded in blowing out the back wall of the rectory rather than leaving it with a barely noticeable black smudge. Life's regrets begin early and remain indelible.

Still, what you are at six, you probably still are at 60 and thus my toxic revulsion at filling out forms has only gotten worse. This is a bad thing for a pilot, since we occasionally have to fill out medical applications and aircraft registration forms. I've recently done both. As far as medical forms, the FAA has streamlined this with the medexpress online system. With one exception, it makes the process as painless as it can be, short of being eliminated entirely. The exception is remembering a password for a site you use only once every two or three years. This is actually a wider scourge of life in the digital age.

No problem; just use the lost-password utility. I did that, but no joy. Tried again the next day and it worked. An e-mail query was promptly returned and—the real surprise—I got a phone call from the medexpress support staff asking if I got everything sorted out. That was a week later, but I still think it worthy of favorable remark. Stipulating that we would all like to be done with Third Class medicals, you don't expect this kind of service from the FAA.

And, in an earlier customer service experience, sadly, the agency lived down to its low expectations. This one turned into a true fiasco. When our Cub came up for registration renewal, it fell to me to get the paperwork done. To its credit, anticipating the re-registration crush, the FAA devised a streamlined method involving an owner-specific code that you could use to almost push-button the process. But that code was mailed to the previous partner manager and he lost it, so I had to start over from scratch.

That meant getting the registration form, filling it out and sending it in. With registration transfer at resale, the FAA allows the pink copy to serve as a temporary certificate, but with re-registrations, they don't. Why? Who the hell knows? I couldn't get anyone to explain it. It's probably some pointless bureaucratic checkbox lost to the fog of time. Being an acute victim of FFPS, I'm susceptible to filling out the form incorrectly and I did. I made some minor error in abbreviation or the like. Also, something had to have a line drawn through it to correct it. Two weeks later, back came the form, not just once, but twice—or was it three times?-- each time with a dense letter explaining the problem. Because of this, the Cub was actually offline for nearly three months.

Admitting that I have no patience with filling out little boxes and making sure the date is 05/30/2013 and not 05/30/13, I found the entire process infuriating because I couldn't get anyone on the phone to clarify it for me, exactly, so I could avoid the second rejection. The phones were either busy or wouldn't answer. E-mails were returned, but were cryptic. The online instructions I found were somewhat helpful, but that's what led me into filling in the form incorrectly in the first place. I'll cop to being a form fill-out moron, but I claim credit for at least engaging in self-help.

Hard to believe these two disparate customer experiences came from the very same agency, but then FAA departments seem to operate as independent duchies. People involved in certification projects laugh when they hear the phrase "one FAA." The FAA you get probably depends on who picks up the phone when you call, if anyone picks up at all. Well, at least at medxpress, they do.

Comments (25)

I remember the pain we all (applicants, CFIs and examiners) went through when the FAA switched over to IACRA for pilot exams. I still fill out a backup paper copy of the 8710 for all my students. IACRA still only supports "certain" browsers, and that list of supported browsers seems to change every time I send someone for a ride. The good news was that the FAA guy you called when things got hosed could usually hack you around any problems.

Designing and building web sites is no longer rocket science and most computer science graduates know how to create one that works reasonably well. Maybe the feds should hire one.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | June 3, 2013 8:34 AM    Report this comment

I guess nothing changes. When I got my CFI in 1990, I had to bring an A+P with me to avoid a possible third trip to the FSDO in order to resolve any possible issues with the airplane that might come up prior to the practical test. On the first trip once an issue was found the check ride stopped and had to do the process all over again. It is the same with making changes with a GOM in a pt 135 operation. None of the "computerized" changes in doing forms or applications have resulted in getting items done with the FAA any easier. It just gave an excuse to charge more (written tests).

Posted by: matthew wagner | June 3, 2013 10:40 AM    Report this comment

A couple of months ago I had occasion to re-register my aircraft so as to qualify for Experimental Amateur Built. A week later a letter came back noting what I was missing (I had left one form on my scanner and forgot to sent it - among other things) and was clear enough that I could comprehend it. So back it went and less that a week later my number was in the database. My kudos to the registration branch.

Posted by: Unknown | June 3, 2013 10:45 AM    Report this comment

Well, as bureaucratic as the FAA is, it has a bit further to go in order to match local DMV officials. We had tag application for a boat trailer rejected because the police officer that inspected the trailer had his pen run out of ink as he was signing off the safety inspection form. He switched to a new pen mid-signature, and that was all it took for the DMV to totally reject it and we have to go through the inspection all over again (for another fee of course). Hey FAA employees, don't get any ideas from reading this...

Posted by: A Richie | June 3, 2013 11:22 AM    Report this comment

Oh, I almost forgot: I have to give credit where it is due to the FAA. When I was doing some research on an airplane title search, those ladies that print out the microfiche records and send it to you are THE NICEST public servants I have ever dealt with. And it only cost maybe $2.00 or so, a real bargain. That's been a few years ago (maybe 5-7) but I sure hope these folks are still around. What a breath of fresh air!

Posted by: A Richie | June 3, 2013 11:28 AM    Report this comment

It's hard to hire (or contract) a web developer when there's no money in the budget, Jerry.

My last experience with Big Bureaucracy was when I tried to register an antique motorcycle (that's younger than my plane) with the Dept. of Motor Vehicles.

Paper forms a'plenty and a special "inspection" by a special DMV inspector were involved (and money, of course). Sure enough, a week later a letter arrived that was so obtuse that it wasn't even clear whether there was a problem or not. A call to the DMV was quickly answered and the agent immediately accessed a computer log of every step that my registration had made along its bureaucratic drunk-walk to that point. The answer was quick, correct, and delivered professionally.

My point is not to compare our DMV to the FAA, but to note that a great deal of effort ($$$) had been invested in countering the deservedly poor reputation of that state department.

Sadly, we now have a governor and legislative majority elected from the "small government" faction. They are making good on their promise to "streamline" the State's responsibilities but oh, how they are shocked (shocked!) when there is a sewage spill, nursing home tragedy, or bridge collapse that could have been prevented if they hadn't slashed the budgets of those oversight agencies.

Sequestration was a myopic monochromatic mandate foisted by the ones who would save money by replacing stainless steel rivets with aluminum.

Posted by: Chip Davis | June 3, 2013 12:11 PM    Report this comment

I wouldn't call Med Express painless. When you are in your 60s with a wife that makes you go to the doctor for every minor issue, filling out the Doctors Visits section of the form can be a pain. You have to fill in "country" for every entry, and "US" is way down at the bottom where you have to scroll down every time. Given that around 99% of all doctors visits on these forms are probably in the U.S., why couldn't they put that at the top of the list (as most online sales organizations that sell in this country do)?

Posted by: James E. Ellis | June 3, 2013 12:29 PM    Report this comment

James...I'm so sorry. There is no known treatment for FFPS.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 3, 2013 12:33 PM    Report this comment

In the last three months I have had two rounds with FAA Registration Branch. The first was a re-registration, I mis-enterred an item. Two weeks later I got a notice that I had screwed up and a rather cryptic letter of instructions and obscure information. I must have guessed right because two weeks later I had my registration. The second was registering a project plane that came with very dodgy documentation. I sent the form in with an explanation of the situation, in a couple of weeks I had another cryptic form letter but the lady (Thelma Mccullough) typed a note at the bottom with precise instructions. Within three weeks I had my registration. All this at a time I expected terrible service because of sequestration.

Posted by: Richard Montague | June 3, 2013 12:36 PM    Report this comment

I have one for the PLUS side of the Registration Branch... We changed from an INC to an LLC for our plane, and having no experience in corporate-speak I filled out the change of ownership form wrong. Got it back with that same multi=page "explanation" which explained nothing. Guessed again, and guessed wrong again. So I called the woman who had robo-signed the rejection, and she was AMAZING. Said things like, "Well, I can't tell you how to fill out the form, but if it was me I'd write 'co-owner' instead of 'President.'" Took her advice and the new registration arrived a week later. There really are some good (and competent, and caring) folks there!

Posted by: Donald Weber | June 3, 2013 2:58 PM    Report this comment

I am in Canada and while our registrations are good forever we do have to send in and annual update on inspection status and hours flown. It is an easy to read, prepopulated form, with a code for the website. They only want to know three things (unless you've had a wreck) and I have been as much as a month late with them and no fuss. Easy as pie. Importing an airplane into Canada on the other hand that's a nightmare; and like Paul is saying, the nightmare and the easy experience are from the same organization.

Posted by: Sean Gallinger | June 3, 2013 3:17 PM    Report this comment

First Paul, you are a scary dude! Making explosives out of crayons? Really? And I thought only to use them to draw airplanes... As for re-registering the airplane, I got the "correction" form in the mail. It was so minuscule an error I could not believe the FAA wasted the time and effort to contact me. You must have hit the lottery with three!

Posted by: Linda S. Berl | June 3, 2013 3:48 PM    Report this comment

On the plus side of customer service from the FAA, kudos to Philly FSDO for the help they gave to me when I was trying to help a friend's widow sell their airplane. In trying to replace a lost aircraft registration they were fantastic! They had the situation straightened out and a new one in my hands in less than a week.

Posted by: Linda S. Berl | June 3, 2013 3:59 PM    Report this comment

The number of returned forms listed here suggests this is not an isolated problem, although I experienced a particularly virulent case.

The biggest beef, really, is not being able to get anyone on the phone.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | June 3, 2013 6:24 PM    Report this comment

In April I reported the sale of a currently registered aircraft using the registration branch's well defined process. I did this because the new owner of the experimental aircraft was planning on making some major alterations before flying it and I wanted to make sure it was out of my name long before he got around to flying it. It took 5 weeks for them to update the FAA registration database to reflect the aircraft as "sale reported", though their on-line verbiage indicated something like ten business days should be expected. The good news is that it actually did work....eventually.

Posted by: Thom Riddle | June 4, 2013 6:20 AM    Report this comment

I actually had a decent customer service experience with the registration branch. I filled out the registration form wrong when I was changing the ownership structure of the airplane. I got it back with the cryptic letter that didn't make any sense at all.

After trying to blame the error on my wife, I called the registration branch and spoke to a man named James who explained what I did wrong and how to correct it. It took about 1/2 hour with 20-25 minutes on hold to get through the process, but I had my registration certificate within a couple of weeks. (Just to clarify, the mistake I made was my own stupid fault (not my wife's, or the FAA's) and once it was explained to me in simple words I understood immediately what had happened.)

Posted by: Colin Reed | June 4, 2013 9:05 AM    Report this comment

I need to get a replacement for my disintegrating 42-year old airworthness certificate, which I'm pretty sure is a fairly simple process for the local (VNY) FSDO.

Unfortunately, post-9/11 security prohibits going to the FSDO without pre-clearance and an appointment, and my call for one a few weeks back went to voice mail without generating any return call.

Process put aside while I'm engaged in investigating avgas prices & current trends in Margurita preparation here in Mexico; we'll see how it works out.

Posted by: John Wilson | June 6, 2013 7:50 AM    Report this comment

Bureaucracy knows no bounds. I once had a large filing I had made to the Wyoming Secretary of State's office returned, because I had miscounted the pages and had shorted the filing fee by 20 cents. The return postage was $5.20. A call to the Secretary of State in person (we had been acquaintances since college) caused a change in that policy--but why did the policy exist in the first place?

A few years ago, as part of an adoption, my client had to be finger-printed as part of a cursory background check. Since he was a police officer, he provided his fingerprints on the usual form used by almost all Colorado law enforcement agencies. The agency responsible for the background check rejected the request, because they had their own fingerprint form which was "required"--but a comparison of the 2 forms showed only that the boxes for the personal information were in a slightly different order, and the form itself was a slightly different size. (continued)

Posted by: Cary Alburn | June 6, 2013 9:28 AM    Report this comment

(part 2)Form before function seems to be part of bureaucratic training. We're required to file all pleadings in the District Court electronically. In the caption is the court's address, 201 LaPorte. For years, the caption I had stored in my computer said 201 W. LaPorte, although there is no East LaPorte in Fort Collins. But I had a time-sensitive pleading rejected by a minor clerk, because the official address is 201 LaPorte.

In 45 years of law practice, 5 of which were as a USAF JAG, I've seen literally hundreds of similarly idiotic examples from various government agencies, federal, state, and local. So Paul, that your application was rejected 3 or 4 times doesn't surprise me at all. Welcome to the real world! :)

Posted by: Cary Alburn | June 6, 2013 9:28 AM    Report this comment

Form before function seems to be part of bureaucratic training. We're required to file all pleadings in the District Court electronically. In the caption is the court's address, 201 LaPorte. For years, the caption I had stored in my computer said 201 W. LaPorte, although there is no East LaPorte in Fort Collins. But I had a time-sensitive pleading rejected by a minor clerk, because the official address is 201 LaPorte.

In 45 years of law practice, 5 of which were as a USAF JAG, I've seen literally hundreds of similarly idiotic examples from various government agencies, federal, state, and local. So Paul, that your application was rejected 3 or 4 times doesn't surprise me at all. Welcome to the real world! :)

Posted by: Cary Alburn | June 6, 2013 9:29 AM    Report this comment

Form before function seems to be part of bureaucratic training. We're required to file all pleadings in the District Court electronically. In the caption is the court's address, 201 LaPorte. For years, the caption I had stored in my computer said 201 W. LaPorte, although there is no East LaPorte in Fort Collins. But I had a time-sensitive pleading rejected by a minor clerk, because the official address is 201 LaPorte.

In 45 years of law practice, 5 of which were as a USAF JAG, I've seen literally hundreds of similarly idiotic examples from various government agencies, federal, state, and local. So Paul, that your application was rejected 3 or 4 times doesn't surprise me at all. Welcome to the real world! :)

Posted by: Cary Alburn | June 6, 2013 9:30 AM    Report this comment

Whoops--how did that happen? Is Avweb also bureaucratic? :)

Posted by: Cary Alburn | June 6, 2013 9:32 AM    Report this comment

Cary, I think your form filling skills are too strong and simply commmented in triplicate out of habit :)

Posted by: Paul Rau | June 6, 2013 2:40 PM    Report this comment

It's not just the USA...There was an article in AOPA Pilot(?) about a man that flew his homebuilt to his native Brazil from the US. Of course he paid all his fuel stops in US greenback cash. But in one South American country, they rejected his otherwise clean and crisp $100 bill because it had a tiny corner of the bill missing (torn off but without touching the printed area). They made him ride a taxi into the nearest city and sit down in a banker's office to get it resolved but eventually the bank did trade it for a perfect crisp $100 bill after inspecting it and acknowledging it was indeed torn and only then was he was returned to the airport!

Posted by: A Richie | June 7, 2013 9:52 AM    Report this comment

The FAA is no better or worse than any other similar organization. The mindset of the bureaucrat is its own culture. It is folly that anyone would expect different. The best approach is to get your "i's" dotted and "t's" crossed (iOS has issues with that sentence!) and make sure whatever you send in works the first time. My general strategy is to ask "hey what's the way to do" whatever I need done and amazingly I often get lucky. I have been told things like "we're not supposed to help but..." And shaman I'm done. Being polite and asking go much better than being demanding. Do I get the runaround sometimes? Yeah. As for the FAA they have bounced some papers around like a tennis ball on me but that's just how it is. In the end a steady walk with no back steps gets the job done. I might even say they are better than most their size.

Posted by: FILL CEE | June 14, 2013 9:19 PM    Report this comment

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